Tuesday, April 23, 2013

album review: 'having a beard is the new not having a beard' by the beards (RETRO REVIEW)

I don't like reviewing comedy albums.

Now this isn't to say I don't like comedy albums, because I do. Weird Al Yankovic and The Arrogant Worms are both hilarious acts that I find really funny for wildly different reasons (the former because the man is a master at song parodies and the latter because their uniquely Canadian humour has surprising breadth and wit), and I even occasionally enjoy listening to stand-up comedy albums and laughing my ass off at the better ones. But I don't like reviewing comedy albums because humor is very different for different people. For instance, I showed my sister some of George Carlin's comedy, and she didn't find it funny so much as finding it vulgar and a little too middlebrow for her tastes (but then again, she likes some of the humor in The Carrie Diaries, which i find incomprehensible). The point I'm trying to make is that everyone tends to have different tastes and styles when it comes to comedy, different things that make us laugh. 

In my case, I think the best comedy (at least for me) is something that can resonate on other levels as well, maybe spur a bit of an emotional impact or have some intellectual heft. For instance, I think Superbad is one of the funniest movies of the last decade because Judd Apatow nails the atmosphere and there's a genuine emotional connection between the characters of Michael Cera and Jonah Hill. It's the same principle with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, because the comedy seems to mean more when it comes from characters you have a connection with. On a similar note, that's why This Is 40 is such an utterly wretched comedy - half because I can't relate with Paul Rudd's slacker character, and half because the entire script is rooted in deep-seated anger and depression that makes all the comedic bits feel really uncomfortable.

And on a similar note, Aaron Sorkin's comedy tends to work when it's delivered with some class and panache and a deft talent for clever dialogue (The Newsroom makes this work about a quarter of the time, mostly when Thomas Sadoski is on screen). Community works as comedy in a similar way, but also balances the cleverness of the entire show with real emotional heft. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report work on the principle that if you take real complex issues and intelligently examine them, you can wring real laughs out of the occasional silliness and idiocies of modern life and politics. Hell, that's a premise Carlin used for years, finding and complaining about the stupidity of the modern world and making it entertaining and funny. 

Either way, my basic principle behind comedy is that I like material that has some wit behind it, but also can connect with me on an intellectual or emotional level. So considering that, does Having A Beard Is The New Not Having A Beard by The Beards manage to work for me?

First, a bit of background. Frankly, from reading my little discussion above, you should already know what my answer is going to be, but I'll give you a bit more time to parse it out. After all, what's not to like about this unsigned folk-comedy act from Australia that operates on the gimmick that they're called The Beards and all they talk/sing about are beards and the growing of facial hair? I mean, surely there is an excess of comedy that could be mined from such an act, such peerless depth and commentary that could be gleaned from this rich, fertile concept!

Okay, if you haven't guessed my opinion by now, something has probably become knocked loose in your brain. For those of you who have figured out my opinion, you're probably wondering why the hell I'm reviewing this album from over a year ago in the first place? Well, let's just say that as a favour to a friend, I took a look at all three of this band's albums, and I'll be focusing my review on their newest album. I think at some level, he probably hopes that I'll like them, or might find them funny.

No such luck, I'm afraid, because I do not like The Beards, and I really, really don't like this album. But before I get into the interesting details why, let me quickly dispense with the good elements about this band. For starters, they're mildly talented instrumentalists and have a decent, if a tad generic, folk rock sound. The lead singer's voice can get a little grating at points, but he throws himself into the songs with considerable aplomb. And occasionally, there are hints of wit in a few of their songs that suggest they could indeed write funny songs.

But here's the big, overarching problem with The Beards, a rather terminal problem that handicaps all of their music: they have one joke, and that joke isn't funny. The joke is this: 'I have a beard, which society deems ugly and unseemly, but yet I have so much pride in my luxurious facial hair, it and I by extension have become awesome'. 

That's it. That's the joke. That's all there is, over three albums. That's all they have to say, that's the root of every one of their songs and all of their material. The only way a man can be considered special or powerful or a 'leader of men' is if he has a beard. And not just a goatee or a mustache, but a long, thick, hairy beard. Who cares what society or proper decorum thinks about your facial hair - no, you have a beard, and that makes you more than just a man, but a man's man, a manly man, doing masculine things!

Yeah, I don't think anything I wrote in the above paragraph is funny either - but only part of that is due to the fact that I'm really not that funny all things considered. The majority of the problem is that the joke loses a lot when it's delivered without the striking image, and while The Beards do use plenty of description to describe their facial hair, the joke doesn't quite work without the visual. Plus, I'm a little unsure of what the punchline is supposed to be - are we supposed to laugh at the bearded men luxuriating in their ridiculous facial hair, or are we supposed to laugh at everyone else who doesn't have facial hair and thus can't be as awesome and manly? Either way, it's not funny.

So with all of that in mind, The Beards are relying on a joke that isn't funny to carry three entire albums worth of material, where they brag about having awesome beards and denigrate everyone who can't grow a beard - which, incidentally, includes nearly all women, which adds a real ugly subtext to their material. What, because a woman is genetically incapable of growing a beard, she lacks the ability to be awesome? That's a little insulting, guys, not to mention completely fucking backwards. And really, this borderline misogyny runs through all their songs when they're talking about girls, particularly when said women mention that the beard is kind of ugly or not working for them, and then dumped without protest. Forget objectification, this is analogous to when rappers brag about having big penises: it's juvenile, it's a little gross, and it's completely unimpressive because it's linked to genetics and little else!

Now, to be fair, there are a number of good songs I can think of off the top of my head where hair has been used as a symbol in some way. Lady Gaga wrote the song 'Hair', using the title material to emphasize her individuality and free spirit. The Who wrote the song 'Cut My Hair' for Quadrophenia to show the main character's desire to conform to the Mod ideal. Hell, the title track of the musical Hair is based upon the importance of long hair as a symbol in the hippie movement to show countercultural free spirit and love, stepping outside of societal standards of decency and thus commenting on how simply the growth of longer hair was enough to infuriate the standards of the squares who couldn't abide it!

Similarly, The Beards use their facial hair as a symbol as well - but not one of inclusiveness, but the opposite. If you don't have a beard in some form, The Beards have no use for you and view you as beneath contempt, because to them, the beard is the pinnacle of masculine presence and force, and those without beards are traitors to their gender. It's anachronistic, proto-masculine bullshit that flies in the face of professionalism, but what makes it intolerable is the smug arrogance and exclusivity. To return to my previous examples, all of of them treat hair in some way as fleeting, a trifle, a component of an image but not a lifestyle. Even Lady Gaga's 'Hair' feels almost desperate as she clings to such a fleeting differentiator to maintain individuality, and through casting herself as that underdog, you feel sympathy and you want to identify with her. It's a symbol of inclusivity, that hair is something the majority of us have, and even though it doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things, it can work as a little symbol to bring us together.

The Beards, on the other hand, use their icon as something to denigrate everyone else with a weird defensive meanness. They use beards as their asserted masculinity, but there's no rationale why - unless, of course, they're referring to historical context, where the masculine beard was treated as a symbol of wisdom and great power. However, that symbol has been dead in the popular consciousness for over a century, mostly because the determination of power due to facial hair is moronic, but also because the majority of men realized a thick ugly, unkempt beard is not endearing to anyone, least of all the majority of the opposite sex, who The Beards seem to treat with disdain and disrespect.

But of course the most telling thing about this band is their lines that 'this music is intended for people with beards' and 'if you don't have a beard, we really don't want you to be listening to our music, it's not intended for you'. Hell, even if I was to not shave for a couple of days and grow something of a beard, I wouldn't want to be associated with these assholes, because all they fucking talk about is their goddamn facial hair! I'm sorry, but I don't see the resplendent awesomeness from a few days of not shaving - you're not defying the man, you're making yourself look worse and inconveniencing yourself when grooming. And to what end - so you can look distinguished by the standards of the 1880s?

Now, of course, I can see a way to make this sort of joke work, and I might be able to tell myself that it's all a joke at the expense of people who grow massive beards in order to spite society or conventional grooming habits? But three problems stand in the way of that idea:

  1. The band is called The Beards, they all have massive ugly beards, and every single one of their goddamn songs are about beards - you'd think if it was a joke on people with facial hair, they would have moved on to something else by now;
  2. The band has cultivated a fiercely loyal fanbase amongst people with facial hair, and it would seem to be a very cruel and unnecessary joke to play on people you've been trying to support;
  3. If it is all one big joke/parody act, it's an incredibly thin parody to make, even with the explosion of facial hair thanks to the hipster boom. If anything, it seems like the faux-countercultural message that they were promoting has taken a larger shape amongst men - so why would you continue to mock a potentially growing fanbase?
And you know, I would like to believe that all of these songs celebrating and fetishizing the beard as the penultimate symbol of masculinity were tongue-in-cheek, that they had a sense of self-deprecation and were just guilty of drawing the joke out far too long (seriously, the songs on Having A Beard Is The New Not Having A Beard are way too goddamn long to maintain the humour value). But the problem with that assumption is that the delivery of this joke in both the lyrics and the tone and the sheer bloody-minded arduousness of how long they've played it is so serious that I find it very hard to see it as self-deprecation. Furthermore - and I feel I haven't stressed this part enough - it's not fucking funny. Weird Al would have a hard time stretching this over an entire song, and odds are he'd probably lump it in with a broader parody of hipster culture.

But really, this sort of music isn't aimed at hipsters or anyone who takes this music with a grain of intelligence. This is 'music' aimed at people who want justification for not grooming their facial hair and instead using it as an empowerment symbol - and in that context, it doesn't work. It comes across as immature, anti-intellectual, and painfully unfunny, and the frustratingly over-sincere delivery only makes it that much worse. 

So yeah, skip The Beards. There's better, smarter comedy from better, smarter comedians, and while there might be some musical talent here, the choice of subject matter is thin at best and utterly insufferable at worst. My only consolation is that right now, this novelty act is unsigned. 

And frankly, beard or no beard, I hope they stay that way.

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